Book review: Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson

(image courtesy Pan MacMillan Australia)
(image courtesy Pan MacMillan Australia)


It’s a rare life indeed that isn’t without some kind of drama or another.

But to listen to Howard York, the ebullient, charming, larger-than-life owner of the Hotel Alpha on London’s Euston Road, you would swear that life is simply a series of slightly annoying obstacles easily overcome with minimal effort.

That’s never the case of course, but then Howard York is no ordinary man.

A conjurer of the impossible, the Midas of high society, he is adept at spinning the world into the shape, colour or style you most want it to be.

Life too dreary for you? Attend one of Howard’s legendary all night parties and you’ll be plunged, for a time at least, into a land flowing with rivers of champagnes, sparkling, witty conversation, and the sense that anything is possible.

Unsure of where you belong? You belong with Howard of course, and he will go out of his way to keep you convinced of that fact for every second you are in his company.

His is an identity, a personality, forged by spin and hyperbole and everyone from his wife to his sons JD and Chas to the faithful concierge of the hotel, Graham, all too happily buy into it, content to let the fiction live and breathe as the real deal.

But Hotel Alpha, an engagingly written book by British comedian and writer Mark Watson, is not primarily about Howard York, despite his towering presence in every chapter of the book.

It’s story, one told over 40 years of comings-and-goings at the eponymous hotel, is told through the eyes of Graham, the stoic, conservative, change averse concierge, and Howard’s adopted son Chas, blind since childhood in mysterious circumstances, who does his best to adapt to a world he can barely remember.

With their stories alternating from chapter to chapter, we’re given rich insight into the way in which identity is forged not so much based on actuality but rather on what people believe to be true, on what they’re willing to believe and buy into when it suits them.

And for quite a long time, everyone, Graham and Chas included, is happy to buy into Howard’s fabulous life confections, happy to be in his orbit, occupiers of the lavishly reality-repelling world he has constructed within the Hotel Alpha’s walls.



(image courtesy Picador)
(image courtesy Picador)


But life is rarely content to stay at arm’s lengths or beyond anything as temporal as the doors on the hotel, and soon enough, little by little, the small and large lies underpinning Howard’s world come leaking through the gleaming facade and everyone must deal with the fact that even the great Howard York is not immune to the clay-footed failings of humanity.

Hotel Alpha remains throughout, however, a funny, gently-told story, despite its ever-building narrative, content to let the events unfold against the wider tapestry of the lives of Graham and Chas and those they love and are closest to.

The themes are writ large true but not in some histrionic, melodramatic fashion; rather as real events affecting real people, who slowly discover that life simply cannot be bent to the will of one man, no matter how charismatic or capable he may be.

And that it’s near impossible to sustain a sense of who you are based on who someone else is, or purports to be; in the end, you must stand on your own two foot, and define yourself on your own terms.

True no man is an island and to some extent our identities are malleable depending on who it is we are with but in the end you cannot wholly define yourself in the light of another, no matter how enchanting or likeable they might be.

It’s a lesson that Chas and Graham, as well as a host of other characters learn over the course of the novel which is full of language that springs to life, ripe with pithy observations and some judiciously-placed humour.

The lesson is reinforced too through 100 extra stories, short and long, on an associated website, that Watson has written, all of which tell the story of the Hotel Alpha through various people who come with its walls for a season or just for a night.

Hotel Alpha is an imaginative work, full of wit, sage insights and compelling stories, that remind us at every turn that while none of us are an island, who we are is a matter for us and us alone, and cannot be left in the hands of others, not even the great world-shaping Howard York.



(image via courtesy Heyne)
(image via courtesy Heyne)

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